When Triangles are “Bad”
October 3, 2016—The Leadership in Ministry workshops at The Center for Lifelong Learning uses Bowen Theory (or Bowen Family Systems Theory—BFST) as a framework for interpreting the dynamics of congregational and organizational life, and, to help participants work on their own leadership functioning in those contexts.
One misunderstanding about basic concepts of Bowen Family Systems theory (BFST) has to do with assigning value statements. For example, the notion that overfunctioning is “bad.” Overfunctioning, like other behaviors are not “bad” or “good,” they are merely functions, symptoms, or manifestations of emotional process played out in the way people relate to one another. This is why it’s more helpful to observe how individuals function in the context of a system than it is to assign motives to people’s behaviors.
That said, we must also accept that ways of functioning, while not “good” or “bad”, either contribute to the health of the system or work at keeping the system stuck. While we can say that triangles are neither good nor bad, merely one of the many ways systemic anxiety gets played out and structured, we can identify when triangles do not help the system toward growth and health.
Here are ways that triangles are “bad”:
- When they promote the development of symptoms in relationships. For example, in a family and underfunctioning parent triangles a spouse and a child to “take care” of the symptomatic adult in the family.
- When they perpetuate chronic symptoms or conflict. For example, when a system—a family or organization—reacts to problems by immediately identifying a scapegoat or identified patient rather than striving toward accountability without blaming.
- When they work against the resolution of toxic issues. For example, because of its inability to deal with a willful but esteemed patriarch a congregation perpetually fails to deal with the individual’s willfulness by triangling the minister, the patriarch, and the congregation’s reticence at holding people accountable.
- When they get so structured so as to block change over time. When triangles get formatted and entrenched, they deprive people of options. For example, when a triangle becomes part of the structure so that every decision needs to involve one person—whether or not that person has anything to do with the issue or decision. In a small congregation this may involve a “gatekeeper” and in a family, this may involve a patriarch.
While it is not helpful to identify triangles as “bad” it is appropriate to identify when they are detrimental to the health and to the functioning of the system in mature, responsible, ways.
Registration for the Leadership in Ministry workshops is now open. Visit the online registration site for more information.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H), and Theories of Learning for Christian Educators and Theological Faculty.
Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans.